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Kerry pushes back as Israel 'apartheid' controversy builds

Fending off criticism from Republicans and some Democrats after warning that Israel could become an 'apartheid' state, Kerry reiterated his support for Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the briefing room of the State Department, April 24, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the briefing room of the State Department, April 24, 2014.

Fending off growing criticism from Republicans and even some Democrats over his alleged comments suggesting Israel risks becoming "an apartheid state,” Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated his support for Israel Monday night while noting that certain words are “best left out of the debate here at home.”

He’s been on the receiving end of bipartisan blowback – including a call for his resignation from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz -- after reportedly suggesting in a closed-door meeting with world leaders that, without a peace deal, Israel "winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens -- or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state."

“I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone, particularly for partisan, political purposes, so I want to be crystal clear about what I believe and what I don't believe,” Sec. Kerry said in a statement responding to the controversy. “Israel is a vibrant democracy and I do not believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one.”

Kerry’s statement continued, “I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional, and if I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe my firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution. In the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve.”

Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, have used the same phrasing in the past. But as Kerry himself suggested, it’s a highly controversial comparison. “While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Ohlmert have all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not "confirm the accuracy of comments made during a private meeting,” but has not denied them either. On Sunday, Psaki posted a message on Twitter linking to a 2013 article referencing top Israeli officials warning of an “apartheid state.”

While not mentioning the secretary of state by name, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and former colleague of Kerry in the Senate, took issue with those comparisons in a tweet.

Another Democrat, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, also slammed Kerry’s comments. “Secretary Kerry knows as well as anyone that negotiating lasting peace in this region of the world is difficult but it’s not productive to express his frustration in this way,” Begich said, according to Politico. “This remark also implies Israel should ignore the pact between [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas and the Hamas. Last time I checked, the U.S. didn’t negotiate with terrorist organizations and we shouldn’t expect the Israeli government to either.”

On the other side of the aisle, top Republicans including House Minority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida described Kerry’s remarks as “disappointing.”

Taking it one step further, Sen. Cruz took to the Senate floor Monday to call on Kerry to step down “before any further harm is done to our alliance with Israel, he should offer President Obama his resignation."

Fellow Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert piled on the criticism, declaring that Kerry "effectively cursed Israel.”

"Secretary Kerry is both ignorant of history and of the offense of apartheid," Gohmert added.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain laughed off the heated rhetoric. "Resign? Whoa. That's a pretty high bar," McCain told NBC News.

Though when asked if Kerry made an error by bringing up apartheid in that context, McCain said, "If he made that mistake, he should clarify immediately."